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Brace Yourselves Now: Extended Breastfeeding Meets Reality TV

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Word on the street, thanks to a recent New York Post article, is that the television production company behind such cringe-inducing series’ as Dance Moms and Ice Moms are planning to milk the recent controversy over extended breastfeeding -- sparked by the now-infamous “Are You Mom Enough?” TIME magazine cover -- for all its worth, via a reality TV show about – you guessed it – extended breastfeeding.

My first thought upon learning of the plans for the show was “Snooze Fest.” I mean, breastfeeding itself – although an endless source of shock and offense for those who’ve somehow missed the memo that breast milk equals baby food  – is kind of boring. Boring to watch, and even – in my experience, some of the time – to do, beyond the nice cozy bonding, doing-the-best-thing-for-baby feelings, anyway. It’s certainly not, generally, the stuff successful reality TV shows are made of. In fact, most moms who find themselves at the center of nursing controversies didn’t set out to make a statement by breastfeeding in public; they simply went to the mall, or church, or Target, and unwittingly ruffled the feathers of someone who mistook nursing for something sensational. (Someone like, say, Kim Kardashian… Arguably the least likely person I’d ever suspect of picking a bone over a little boob exposure.) So while I think American attitudes toward breastfeeding present a fascinating sociological phenomenon – this is a culture in which, you know, the whole history of human evolution, paired with modern scientific support of breastfeeding as aces for moms and babies alike (also, as it turns out, for society-at-large), gets submerged under sensationalism and sexualization (whilst Kim Kardashian’s boobs are somehow fit for qualm-free public consumption any old time) – I’m not at all sure this peculiar phenomenon is what a reality show on the subject will aim to explore.

So, just after “Snooze Fest,” my thoughts turned to “Uh-oh.” Given the questionable examples of parental priorities (ummmmm… what…) these producers were able to locate -- and showcase -- in their previous projects, I’m wary to see what extremes turn up in this new endeavor; I wonder if this show (and its ‘stars’) will give the public a falsified sense of confirmation that controversy around breastfeeding (babies or toddlers) is in fact merited. Because as much as internet skepticism around the series has noted the show’s potential to exploit its breastfeeding participants, I have no doubt they – like pretty much everyone else who’s ever volunteered for trashy reality TV stardom – will exploit themselves just fine. Unfortunately, this will no doubt yield negative side effects for regular, non-extreme moms who happen to breastfeed their toddlers. Because if you’ll remember, my response to the article that started this whole thing (I think I was one of the, like, ten people who actually read it after gawking at the cover?) was that there are lots of middle-grounders in this breastfeeding/attachment/natural parenting mix. For a lot of people, breastfeeding a toddler, which the WHO recommends (to at least the age of two), is not a very big deal. Breastfeeding worked for them, and continues to work, and they’ll let their kids take the lead on weaning. Just because some attention-starved, self-described attachment parents are comfortable inviting public judgment into their lives by way of this show, doesn’t mean others who happen to share in the practice it spotlights should be subjected to that same brand of judgment. And unfortunately, I think this television show might promote, rather than discourage, just that kind of thing from happening.

I thought the TIME article was very good, despite its profiling of some of the more extreme (slash voluntarily house-bound) attachment parents out there. Overall, it constituted a fascinating introduction, for the general public, to a style of parenting that emphasizes some of the age-old, universal parenting practices that have been left to the wayside in our overworked, highly distracted, super-high-tech culture; keeping babies on parents’ bodies, sleeping close to them, and breastfeeding them.

Of course, the magazine’s cover became the center of all conversation around the topic, and its nuances were lost to a large-scale “Mommy Wars” revival that sounded oh-so recycled, and ultimately didn’t accomplish much: attachment moms vs. moms who sleep, working moms vs. stay at home moms, breastfeeding moms vs. formula-feeding moms, and nowhere the tween shall meet? That’s not realistic, and we know it. Lots of people do all of the above. And they’re all mom enough. But for all of the noise formula-defenders make against the apparent aggressive, judgmental breastfeeding-only agenda brigade, it’s the moms who want to breastfeed who continue to struggle in getting the support they need to do so to their satisfaction, and it’s the moms who do breastfeed who continue to get stink-eyed (or arrested) out of public spaces in the midst of their everyday lives.

Perhaps putting them squarely in the public eye will help the situation, will make breastfeeding a more ‘normal’ sight for those not accustomed to it. But given the nature of reality television, and of “Dance Moms,” I’m concerned it’ll plant a seed of scrutiny and pre-judgment that the extended-breastfeeding mom and tot must be some kind of crazy, instead of just doing their natural thing. (Not for everyone, but also just not a big deal).

What do you think? Could this upcoming show be something other than detrimental to an already-hurting public breastfeeding state of affairs?

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